The learning curve

In 2016, commercial-scale oil production will begin in Uganda. But with only a quarter of all its children in secondary school, how can more of the people – especially girls – benefit from its new wealth?

Girls at the Lamwo Kuc Ki Gen High School, northern Uganda
Girls at the Lamwo Kuc Ki Gen High School, northern Uganda. Photograph courtesy of Peas

“John-Mary has always had dreams,” says Justine Nantengo of her son, who stands smart and shy in his crisp blue shirt on the dirt floor of their tiny mud-brick home. In this district, on the western edges of Kampala, where the urban sprawl gives way to green and where tarmacked roads dwindle to rutted, rust-red tracks, if you don’t have dreams you have nothing.

For a long time John-Mary dreamed of finishing secondary school, but the few local schools were too expensive for his single mother, supporting five children on a plantation worker’s salary. Then in 2008 Onwards and Upwards opened, a secondary school run by Peas – Promoting Equality in African Schools, a social enterprise and charity hybrid. School fees were only 52,000 Ugandan shillings (£12) a term, less than half the price of the average private school and USh19,000 (£5) lower than fees at the supposedly free government schools.

John-Mary, who was then 19, enrolled, graduated with the third-highest grades in the district and is now funding the cost of studying for a degree in education at Makerere University in Kampala by teaching at Onwards and Upwards. He hopes to teach full-time, to fund his younger siblings through school, perhaps, one day, rebuild the family’s decrepit home and allow his mother to retire.

Like many countries across Africa, Uganda has made considerable progress in increasing primary-school enrolment rates. Under the UN Millennium Development Goals introduced in 2000, national governments pledged to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Across sub-Saharan Africa, this led to an increase in net primary-school enrolment rates from 18 per cent in 1999 to 76 per cent in 2009.

The Ugandan government, led by Yoweri Museveni, introduced universal primary education in 1997, three years before the UN pledge. According to Ugandan government statistics, net enrolment rates rose from 57 per cent to 85 per cent in 1997 alone, and today just over 90 per cent of children are enrolled.

But this created a second problem, says Ismael Mulindwa, head of policy and regulations at the Ugandan ministry of education. “In the space of one or two years, the number of children in primary school shot up from about two million to seven million [Uganda has a population of 34.5 million]. When these children reached their final year of primary, another question came in: where do they go now?”

Uganda took an unusual step. In 2007, it became one of the first African countries to set a goal of universal secondary education, but the government accepted that it lacked the capacity to implement the programme directly. “At that point, we had around 800 government secondary schools, which could not take up that big number of school leavers. So we now thought of forging a partnership with private schools, to help absorb these numbers,” Mulindwa told me. The government encouraged private schools to step in by offering schools participating in the programme an annual grant of USh141,000 (£35) per pupil. In exchange for accepting the government subsidy, the participating schools agree not to charge tuition fees – but most schools get around this by imposing inflated top-up charges for lunch, uniforms and books instead.

The policy has yielded mixed results: enrolment has improved, but the quality of schooling is varied and often bad. Private providers can be costly and schools have been closed down suddenly when profits dried up. Large parts of the population are still not served by any secondary schools.

Peas, however, is pioneering a new model to provide access to affordable but high-quality secondary education in those areas where the demand is greatest. The capital and start-up costs for each Peas school are raised in the UK, but the organisation doesn’t want its schools to remain dependent on unsustainable foreign donations. A combination of the annual subsidy from the Ugandan government, low fees to cover lunch costs and an income-generating activity – often a farm attached to the school – aims to make every Peas school financially independent.

“Peas is run as a social enterprise,” says John Rendel, the organisation’s chief executive, “so the capital that people invest into the launch of each school sets up a business, which will not just support one child through school, but will support that child, then their brother, their sister, and so on, ad infinitum.”

There are now 13 Peas-run schools in Uganda as well as one pilot project in Zambia, and it is already one of the largest secondary school networks in Africa. It hopes to build 100 schools in Uganda by 2017, creating 100,000 low-cost secondary school places.

The task is huge. In Uganda only one in four children of secondary school age is in school. For a boy such as John-Mary, to miss out on secondary school is to be consigned to a life of poverty in a country where 38 per cent of the people live on less than $1.25 a day. For a girl, the consequences can be even worse.

Of Justine’s five children, only Mary hasn’t completed primary school – as a girl, she couldn’t contribute to her fees by making bricks. Mary Nantume married at 15. She now sits in one corner of the room with a polite but dazed smile and lets Justine and John-Mary speak for her. She has recently left her husband, returning home to live with Justine. Under Baganda custom, her husband will retain full custody of their children, aged three, five and seven.

“Men here are not easy,” John-Mary explains. “When you’re not educated, they treat marriage as employment and when you are a poor girl, they will mistreat you.”

Marriage is often one of the very few options open to an uneducated girl living in poverty. Because it is customary to receive a dowry, marrying a daughter early can be an attractive proposition for parents, too.

Around Kampala are several large, shiny billboards of a suited man punching a well-dressed woman, with the headline “Is this a fair fight?”. Domestic violence is common and even widely accepted in many Ugandan communities – and these posters are of little value if you can’t read. Nor is it easy, in any case, to leave an abusive relationship if you don’t have independent means. In many parts of Uganda, once a dowry has been exchanged, the husband will expect a “refund” should his wife leave. Whether the dowry was paid in money that has been spent, or on animals that have been reared and resold, this is seldom possible, leaving women trapped in unhappy marriages.

Education is not an instant cure to gender inequality, but the statistics for the benefits are unambiguous: an educated girl is seven times less likely to become HIV-positive, her children are twice as likely to live beyond the age of five and each year of secondary school can add between 15 and 25 per cent to her salary.

Onwards and Upwards has been especially successful in getting girls into school. Girls make up 56 per cent of pupils, and almost twothirds of them are boarders. “I had a parent here last week who had lots of children and has to choose which ones he will support through school this year,” the director of the Onwards and Upwards school, Moses Mwanje, told me.

“I asked him, ‘What criteria are you using?’ And he said he wanted to educate those that are most vulnerable first, so he chose his girls.”

Pregnant pause

Travel about 250 kilometres west of Kampala and you reach the trading village of Kigorobya. The whole village amounts to little more than a handful of wooden shacks and bare shops hugging close to the earth road, where children play in the dirt while their mothers do household chores. In this small and deprived outpost, Green Shoots, another Peas school, is faced with a very big problem.

Since it launched in 2010, 45 of the Green Shoots pupils have dropped out of school after falling pregnant. Six have since returned. Teen - age pregnancy rates in Kigorobya are exceptionally high, the result of a combination of poverty and a quirk of local marriage customs. “In most parts of Uganda, if a man gets a girl pregnant he will have to pay a bride price to her family,” says Christine Apiot, Peas’s senior director of education. “But around Kigorobya, there is no dowry system, so when a man here gets a girl pregnant, he doesn’t have to pay.”

Scovia Bamukuhda is one of only two girls in the final year at Green Shoots, and she believes that poverty has driven many of her peers to have children. “Maybe it is a problem of poverty, because they try to get some money. Now if they get money, they get the money through having sex,” she explains.

Stellah Kimuli, two years Scovia’s junior and quietly confident, says: “Another problem is maybe those husbands have money and will pay for them so they can go to school, and then they are getting pregnant.” It is hard to intervene because girls are often secretive about their sources of support. “You cannot know that there is someone who is paying for them,” Stellah says. “She just plays with you, socializes with you, but she doesn’t tell you. You only realize when the girl is already pregnant.”

Stellah was orphaned at nine, and now her uncle pays her boarding fees. She says she has resisted pressure to get married because she is “patient”. Although she is not sure if her uncle will pay for further studies, she wants to become a nurse, and believes the long-term benefits of education will outweigh the short-term benefits of marriage. “I am not even willing to get married. Because I can see I’m a poor girl and if I go and get married right now it’s not easy. It’s like this: as I still have a chance to be helped, let me make the most of that chance.”

To encourage more pupils to follow Scovia’s and Stellah’s lead, the school regularly invites successful women to speak to the girls, and it has arranged for them to receive free counselling and HIV tests at a local health clinic. It has launched an outreach campaign to convince parents to keep their girls in school. According to the headteacher, Simon Okwera, the outreach campaign has led to a fall in the number of girls dropping out because of pregnancy as well as an increase in the number of female boarders.

One of the community’s most vocal and longstanding advocates for girls’ education is Sarah Ntiro, Uganda’s first female university graduate, who was sponsored by the British government to study at Oxford from 1951-54. She was born in Hoima, a city a few kilometres away from Kigorobya, and still lives there today, in a neat concrete house on the edge of town.

“My mother went to school, I went to school, my children and nephews and nieces have gone to university, my grandchildren are graduates and there are people unable to read and write. In 2012. It’s shocking,” she says. “It isn’t that these people don’t see the value of education – they are not even aware that there’s a need. If they were aware they’d fear being left behind, and these people don’t want to be left behind.”

Hoima is poised on the edge of change. In 2016, commercial production is due to start at Uganda’s first oilfield, in the nearby Albertine Rift basin. There are hints of how oil money might transform the region: there’s an incongruous, shopping-mall-shaped hole in Hoima’s clapped-out downtown and, closer to Lake Albert, the occasional oil company compound stands out amid the mud-and-thatch huts. Samuel Nyendwoha, who farms tobacco here and leads the Green Shoots parent-teacher association, says local people grumble that oil companies are bringing in workers from Kampala and further afield. Uneducated locals can at best hope for casual manual labour.

In this sense, Hoima provides an example of a process that is repeating itself across Uganda, and indeed Africa. Foreign investment on the continent may be one route to more rapid economic growth, but although this will enrich a small, educated elite, the swaths of the population that lack the skills to participate in foreigninvestment- driven business will experience little improvement in their wages or standard of living. If, or when, foreign investment transforms Uganda, the uneducated will, in Sarah Ntiro’s words, be “left behind”.

Uganda cannot attain sustainable and inclusive growth if only a quarter of its children enroll in secondary school. “Education is our only foundation, our only future,” Justine Nantengo says. She could be talking about much more than her family of six and their battered mudbrick home on the fringes of Kampala.

Peas’s “Back to School” appeal aims to change the lives of over 16,000 children in Uganda by ensuring that they have a quality secondary school education over the next three years. Until 13 December, the British government will match all public donations to “Back to School” pound for pound. More details at: peas.org.uk